Over the course of the last week, I’ve blasted a number of things in Doctor Who. Considering it’s my favorite show, one might wonder why I’d target it with such negativity. So let’s talk about the versatility of Doctor Who first.
I found myself having a conversation with some guys at the office about the nature of TV shows and why some just don’t work for long runs. When Doctor Who was brought up, I commented that Doctor Who is an exception to the rule. And that got me thinking…
The conversation started when we were talking about how the creators of The Walking Dead stated that the show could go on for 20 more seasons. The reality is that the show should be looking for a resolution within the next season or 2 at most because otherwise it will be canceled with a dwindling audience. See, you need to have a story to tell; that story, as every grade school child should know, has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Kudos on a strong opener but the middle is just gets repeated over and over, chapter after chapter with no sign of an end in sight. At a certain point, the “big bad” just gets replaced with another “bigger bad” and that trend goes on and on. The format of the story is people in a world without law because governments have fallen and with the dead not staying dead anything goes. It’s a world dealing with a virus that brought about an apocalypse. And so we follow a small group from week to week experiencing the same things just against bigger, badder people each time. At a certain point, there’s no way each of the main characters should survive. It begins to buckle under its own undying weight.
A story also has what I call “the ask”. It’s the request you make of your audience to suspend disbelief. We ask you to accept the dead can walk again. If at some point the show reveals that this is the result of an alien invasion, that would be a step too far and the show would lose all semblance of something good. Lost was a story about people trapped on a mysterious island. The writers swore up and down that the show would not feature aliens or time travel, but by season 4, time travel was a part of it, because the writers literally got lost in their own storytelling. It was evident they did not have an end in mind when they started. Shows like The Blacklist are not science fiction, but ask the audience to accept that a high profile criminal from the FBI’s most wanted list can help track down all the other criminals on said list. Even more bizarre, he has free reign to come and go into the FBI facility! The very nature of the show puts the human agents in jeopardy week after week but they survive (and if they do die, it’s questionable whether or not the writers will stay committed to the death.) The whole draw of that show is watching James Spader be pretty awesome but a show can’t go on indefinitely based solely on him. There should be a story and again that captures 3 key things. The Blacklist showed no signs of knowing where it was going as of the last episode I saw.
Which lead my colleagues to bring up what many consider the best of all TV: Breaking Bad. It was indeed excellent and why? Because it had an arc and a defined ending. We followed Walter White on his journey from man to monster, but there’s no ambiguity; over 60 or so episodes, this is a finite run. Walter could not live forever in that lifestyle. And over those 60 episodes, it was an incredible ride. (By contrast, Dexter, the Miami Metro blood spatter analyst/serial killer, tells the story of a monster trying desperately to become a man but there again, it had an arc that had a fantastic and defined ending.) My own gold standard was Babylon 5. Told over 110 episodes (90 of which were written by one man) we followed a five chapter story arc that has an incredible beginning, middle, and end. The science fiction of it was a perk, but where it really beats the others for me is that all the characters are fully realized people with real aims and people do change based on events. It is far from a stagnant story. And it was writing out main characters decades before Game of Thrones came in and did the same. The resolution is satisfying too. I won’t get into Game of Thrones yet because the series is not over; I don’t want to attempt to assess the storytelling prowess of those writers until the series completes, but if past seasons are anything to go by, it’ll be a good ending. For a long time The Sopranos made headway as one of the best shows on TV but it became a series of vignettes that lead nowhere; plots opened one week were never heard from again. The characterization was superb, but the stories could not maintain.
Which leads us to the Doctor. Doctor Who does not have a beginning, middle or end. It borders on the cusp of an anthology considering how every episode can be different. Comedy one week, pirate episode the next, horror the week after followed by a romance. The only consistency is the Doctor and his companions… until they are no longer companions and even the Doctor changes. But the real “ask” for Doctor Who is the TARDIS. The TARDIS offers a doorway into each and every one of those worlds. The Doctor could materialize in the middle of Rick and company and overcome Neegan (The Walking Dead). He could find himself in the middle of a mob meetings calling Tony Soprano a pudding brain or end up on the island and destroying the Dharma Initiative with the sonic screwdriver (Lost). The wonder of it is that Doctor Who is not the best science fiction show out there (as I said, I’d give that honor to Babylon 5) but it is the most versatile. Able to change everything from the cast to the very history of the show itself, no one and nothing is safe. It lends itself to countless new ideas. And the fact that the show is not reliant on one main character remaining miraculously unscathed week after week, gives it even greater versatility. Walter White is not going to meet Tony Soprano, and if Dexter were to find either of them, they’d be on a slab ready for dissection. But the Doctor can meet any of them because that’s the nature of the show.
Even a show like Star Trek can only pull off so many stories with any sense of believability. The big ask is that they travel from planet to planet, but at a certain point one has to wonder why no one dies. (Although post-Game of Thrones, storytelling was upgraded and death can come for anyone!)
Over the years, I have followed a number of shows which has given me a chance to really understand why one story works and another fades. Looking back on Heroes it’s evident that the first season should also have been the last because they created a visionary piece of television. But corporate greed and over-eager fans pushed for more and the show not only fell into obscurity, but when it did return no one cared! And that’s a fate worse than death. Most stories are linear and as such need that chain of beginning, middle and end. Without it, they can’t last that long and will eventually fade away. But there is a blue box out there, possibly sitting in a junkyard… it can go anywhere in time and space.
Quite so. And I intend to see that materializing for decades to come, outliving all of us.
I’m not done looking at the art of the story, but this is a start. I’ll come back to it with more evidence in a future chapter. This is only the beginning… ML